The beatification of Ronald Wilson Reagan by American conservatives is itself a grisly affair but at least he was their President. The tendency of some on the British right to elevate Reagan to saintly status is just embarrassing. This does not mean he was not a fine President – in many ways he was – merely that all these years later it still seems impossible to achieve a balanced appreciation of Reagan’s record in office. For many years, at home and abroad, he was under-rated, patronised by a complacent oppposition bamboozled by Reagan’s style into thinking there was no “there” there; now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and we’re asked by some to believe that Reagan was the greatest President in the history of the United States of America. This won’t do either.
Perhaps the most mysterious of all recent Presidents, Reagan’s legacy is more complicated than the duelling cartoons of Cowboy or Rushmore-status suggest. Yes, he cut taxes but he also raised them when it was judged necessary. Yes he promoted the “reagan Doctrine” of roll-back and sponsored guerilla groups around the world; he also gave tacit encouragement to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yes he possessed a rare degree of empathy but his handling of the AIDS epidemic was tardy to the point it became disastrous.
Nor, despite the promise of the supply-side revolution, did Reagan succeed in shrinking the size of governement. Then again, his determination to do so was often hedged. Yes he said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” but this was subject to the qualification “in this present crisis”. As far back as 1975 the Gipper suggested libertarianism was “the very heart and soul of conservatism” but this was a matter of instinct or sympathy, not a platform for goverment.